James McAvoy went through quite a lot as an actor in order to service his newest film. He plays Conor in The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, a man who becomes utterly unmoored after his wife Eleanor (played by Jessica Chastain) mysteriously leaves him. The movie was originally conceived as two standalone pieces, The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Him and The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Her, before being combined into The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them for theatrical release. All three versions of the film are available in the Blu-ray bundle that just hit this week (the iTunes purchase version has all three versions as well, with Him & Her in the extras section).
I recently hopped on the phone with McAvoy to talk about the role, what it was like working with writer/director Ned Benson, and his desire not to read the script for Her so he could fully immerse himself. We also touch a bit on the progress of X-Men: Apocalypse. Check it out below.
MCAVOY: The first time I had heard anything about this was Ned, years ago, about five or six years ago…and I had just had a little baby boy, and he sent me this script. All there was was The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby. There was no Him, Her, or Them. It was basically the Him movie. I really liked it, I thought it was fantastic. But I did have this little boy, and I really didn’t want to tell a story about a couple losing a little boy. You know what I’m saying?
So a couple of years later, Joel Edgerton was going to do the movie. He fell out at the last minute, I don’t know why. I think it was a scheduling conflict or something like that. And then he came back to me. Two years down the line it wasn’t such a sensitive issue for me, and I jumped at the chance. But by that point, there was also a Her script. So there were two movies to sell, which was sort of weird and I didn’t quite understand, to be honest with you. Then he said “look, it won’t be the movie.” And then I went back to my email, got the original thing that he sent. I said yes. And then right from the first day of rehearsals, they were like “So, for the Him movie and then the Her movie…” And I was like “What Her movie? What the fuck are you guys talking about?” So to be utterly honest, I didn’t sign on knowing we were going to do two movies. It is an amazing idea though. But I just signed on because his writing is great. And he writes so truthfully about the adult experience, and modern living, and modern love. And it seems like he’s harmonizing his views with a kind of transcendent, magical poetic quality as well, and not being afraid to be a little bit decadent with his word choices. Which I quite like, and I thought that was quite brave.
Watching Him first, it’s incredibly easy to empathize with your character. You have no idea why she left him. And he sort of has no idea. How was it playing that?
MCAVOY: You know, it was one of the easier parts I’ve had to play. I think you don’t have to have the loss of the child really to have the imagination to understand what that might feel like. It’s epic – that grief, that tragedy. But it was quite easy to understand what he was going through. Doing it as it is was very upsetting. Doing it as it is, you know what I mean? So it was more of a kind of workout. It’s easy to get there, but getting there was not very nice.
You mentioned the modern take on relationships. One of the things I enjoyed about the movie was the confusion of gender roles. In a movie in the 50’s or 60’s, this character would probably be doggedly going after her. But now he doesn’t know what to do.
MCAVOY: Well, and I think it’s indicative and it’s sort of representative of…I don’t think it’s a crisis, but it’s a little bit of a quandary that you find yourself in. If you’re the kind of guy who lives in the kind of country that expects you to be sensitive, and expects you to be all strong and manly one minute, that’s the exact image that’s portrayed as desirable by all the other media. But on the other hand you’re expected to be completely emotionally available and compassionate at all times and understanding and self-aware and able to help others heal, and shit like that. Like, wait a minute…this sounds like fucking Gandalf, man. It sounds like he’s the perfect fucking human being. And don’t get me wrong, again, it’s not a crisis. It’s nothing that massive that’s going on in the modern male experience. But it is a slightly confusing thing about what it is to be a guy these days. Because, you know, you kind of have to be all of them. You can’t just be a couple of them, you’re expected to be all of them. And that’s certainly where he finds himself in this movie, you know? And I’m not saying reflection is a good thing – that sort of not dealing with things is the way to go either – but there is a sort of blame for not being emotionally mature. And the amount of people that are emotionally mature in my life I could count on one hand. You know what I mean? It’s a difficult thing to do.
Working with Jessica Chastain, did you read the Her script while you were filming so you would know where she was coming from?
MCAVOY: No. When I finally realized that there was a Her movie, finally, late in the day, I asked to be excused from the read-through for my own thing. Because I thought that my movie was kind of a mystery. And her movie is called The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, it’s sort of about her disappearing and all of that. But my movie is literal. She’s disappeared, and I don’t know where the fuck she’s gone. Do you know what I mean? And I wanted to be ignorant to her location. I didn’t want to know what was going on with her and I didn’t want to know what she was going through because, to be honest with you, that was the whole point of my movie. I thought I was in the dark with what the hell was going on with my wife, and then I totally stopped and realized that there was a hell of a lot going on in myself as well. You know what I mean?
MCAVOY: No, it doesn’t exist yet. But I’ve had a chat with Simon [Kinberg] and with lots of producers and writers. So it’s exciting, man. But I can’t give you anything about it, that’s the truth.
Back to Eleanor Rigby. When you’re working with Ned as a writer, you said you responded to the material immediately. But as a director how was he at guiding you through all that stuff? Was he able to wear both hats well?
MCAVOY: He was brilliant. That’s one of the nice things about working with a director who’s written the script is that you get a key into the way they think. In a way that sitting down with them, and them talking to you, and telling you about their vision, and “look at my storyboards” and all that shit. Anybody can do that. Anybody can talk the talk. But if they’ve actually written the script, and it speaks to you in such a way that you know how they want to make the movie, and you know that he knows how to make that movie. Think about reading the script, that does everything. I knew what kind of movie he wanted to make. And I knew that he had a really good idea about how to make it as well, and that he could do that stuff. It was nice to be on set with him because he was just so in command of it. Really nice, chill guy. In a poetic way, he was one of the most assured and self-assured directors I’ve ever worked with, actually.
For our readers who may be new to this project, what would you say is your preferred way to watch this? In what order?
MCAVOY: Any order of Him and Her, or Her and Him. Totally. Watch Him and Her before you watch Them.